COMPUTER HARDWARE, SOFTWARE, AND CONFIGURATION
I currently use a MacBook Pro 16" (2021 M1 Max model) with 32GB of RAM, a third generation iPad Pro 11" with 256GB of storage, and I do all of my editing work in Adobe Lightroom Classic (on the computer) and Lightroom Mobile (on the iPad).
16" MacBook Pro M1 Max Mini Review and Lightroom Benchmark
I upgraded to the 16" M1 Max-equipped MacBook Pro on release day. Here's a quick summary of a test export I did in Lightroom Classic 10.4 with 300 full resolution (50mp) Sony A1 images (ARW files converted to compressed DNGs), exporting as full-size JPEGs, to compare this new Apple Silicon equipped computer to the previous version with the Intel i9 CPU.
MacBook Pro 16" i9 2.3ghz – 20m 33s
MacBook Pro 16" M1 Max – 9m 31s
MacBook Pro 16" M1 Max (with GPU acceleration, June 2022 update) – 3m 24s
For this particular task, the new M1-based computer initially was over twice as fast(!) as the comparable Intel model, and then an even more dramatic improvement was seen with the release of Lightroom Classic 11.4 in June of 2022, which enabled the leveraging of the GPU for exporting images. Additionally, though the new computer still gets warm under extensive load, it does definitely stay a bit cooler than the old one... during that export, the bottom case of the i9 computer got to about 119 degrees F, while the bottom of the M1 machine reached 108 degrees F.
Most noticeably, however, is that the fans on the M1 were only slightly audible. Fan noise was notoriously bad on the i9, and any serious editing work (and sometimes just simple things like viewing certain pages in Safari) would cause them to begin to spin up. Exporting these 300 test JPEGs or doing any other tasks that fully utilize the CPU and/or GPU resulted in the fans almost immediately going to full-power and staying there for the entire time, sounding much like a miniature vacuum cleaner and prompting me to put on my noise-canceling headphones if I wanted to continue working in relative peace.
However, the M1 Max's fans were barely audible during this export (or even when exporting thousands of images), which is a massively welcome change. I know you often read reviews that say a particular device's fan is quiet, only to find when you purchase one of your own that it's actually quite noticeable, but I would describe the M1 Max's fan as a very soft and gentle whir that you have to specifically listen for and is not noticeable above the normal ambient sounds of a room, as opposed to the very prominent higher-pitched whine of the Intel Mac's fan that you can't ignore even if you try. Make no mistake, the M1 Max's fans CAN get loud... if I manually override them to run at full speed with a fan control utility, it's similar in volume to the Intel MBP. But the improved thermal efficiency means the fans don't need to run that high. A heavy load means the fans spin at over 5000rpm on the i9 machine, while on the M1 Max they'll typically only get up to 1500-2500rpm (and during normal operations, like web browsing, office stuff, and editing in Lightroom, they don't turn on at all).
No longer will I dread doing any intensive work that inevitably prompts the loud and distracting fan noise. And, of course, keep in mind, not only is it running cooler and much quieter, it's also twice as fast, and it uses less power (~50 watts during the above Lightroom export vs. the i9 machine's ~70 watts).
Additionally, Lightroom Classic is noticeably more responsive overall when editing. A good example is seen when zooming in to view an image at 100% in the Develop module when no valid 1:1 preview exists (either hasn't been built, or an edit to the image has made the preview obsolete). For a 50mp A1 image, this would take several seconds to render on the Intel Mac, while on the M1 Max, it takes only about a second. The OS remains responsive enough while exporting that you can continue working on other stuff (in Lightroom, or in other apps) even though the export is consuming nearly 100% of the CPU time.
Though I didn't initially think the 32 core GPU of the M1 Max would have a massive benefit over the 16 core GPU of the M1 Pro for Lightroom use (prior to the addition of the ability to use the GPU for exports), it did appear to be utilized to a greater degree than expected during editing. GPU usage at idle is 2-3%, with about 20-30% being seen while scrolling through a web page on Safari. But while editing in Lightroom, I see GPU usage typically in the 40-60% range, briefly peaking at 70-80% during some operations (when actively moving sliders, rotating, etc.). My assumption is that 50% usage on the 32 core GPU would roughly correspond to 100% usage of the 16 core, so it does seem that those extra cores are at least being somewhat put to work while making adjustments.
That being said, I doubt these brief spikes of GPU utilization make much of a noticeable difference in Lightroom performance, and although Photoshop does use the GPU somewhat as well, and apps like Topaz Sharpen AI make considerable use of it, I think the 16 core GPU model would be just fine for most photo editing work. The CPU is the same in all of the 16" models, with 10 cores (8 of them being high-performance cores, and 2 of them "efficiency" cores that are used for less demanding work).
One interesting side note regarding the GPU's effect on performance differences between Lightroom Classic and the competing app Capture One. Though LR has for some used the GPU for accelerating the display of adjustments as they're being made, as well as a few other limited image processing features (such as "Enhance"), at the time that I moved to this machine, LR would not make use of the GPU at all when exporting JPEGs or building previews. In contrast, C1 used very little CPU during exports, but made heavy use of the GPU (85-90%). The end result was that, as fast as Lightroom exported JPEGs on the M1 Max compared to the i9, C1 exported JPEGs even faster, almost twice as fast as LR on the M1 Max.
Thankfully, as of the June 2022 Lightroom Classic 11.4 update, this is something that Adobe has caught up on, with the GPU now being used while exporting, and it's even faster than C1. While with C1 I observed heavy GPU usage but almost no CPU usage, Lightroom appears to still use the CPU to a considerable degree (though perhaps not quite as much as when the GPU was not being used), so I assume that it's this combination of GPU and CPU (as opposed to just using the GPU) that gives LR the edge in exporting.
In short, this new M1-based MacBook Pro finally fulfills my wish for a laptop that doesn't feel like a compromise compared to a desktop computer. Indeed, both the M1 Max and M1 Pro are putting up benchmark scores that handily exceed the $6000 8-core Mac Pro desktop computer, and are on par with the $7000 12-core variant as well as the 14-core iMac Pro.
One concern I had was compatibility with older apps written for Intel Macs. For running apps that have not yet been updated for Apple Silicon, Apple makes Rosetta 2 available (you'll be automatically prompted to download and install it when you try to run an Intel app). Rosetta 2, similar to the function Rosetta performed back when Apple transitioned from PowerPC chips to Intel, converts Intel apps on-the-fly to run on Apple Silicon CPUs. This works pleasantly well. So far I've tried Quickbooks 2019, Fundy Album Designer v10, PFixer (a Lightroom Classic keyboard shortcut app), i1 Profiler, and a few others, and they all run fine. However, I do have some difficulty with ROES print ordering app... sometimes it launches successfully, but other times it hangs on "creating products" while initializing. Most Adobe apps, including Photoshop, Lightroom, Lightroom Classic, and DNG Converter, have been updated to run natively on Apple Silicon.
Although I have not encountered any issues with Intel apps that run through Rosetta 2, it should be noted that these apps will tend to run slower than what they would if they were native apps.
No Desktop Computer
I took a fairly drastic step in mid-2020 of shifting to an exclusively laptop-based setup with the 2019 16" MacBook Pro (2.3ghz i9). Before then, I always had a big and powerful desktop computer for the bulk of my work, along with a basic laptop that I'd use primarily for office stuff and occasional photo editing work. But I decided that it would be simpler and more efficient to just have a more powerful laptop to use for everything.
Contributing to this decision was the realization that I simply don't like sitting at a desk all day. My office still has a desk that I do occasionally use, but my main computer "workstation" is now a small couch in my office, with all my external drives, card readers, and other stuff located on a small table/shelf next to it, and the MacBook Pro stays on a nicely cushioned lap desk. For me, this makes for a far more comfortable work environment, which is important considering how much time I spend here.
The downside that I initially experienced is that even this top-of-the-line i9 laptop didn't have the same raw power as a even a moderate desktop machine, which is a simple matter of heat management (a heavy computing load generates heat, and it's more challenging for this heat to be dissipated in the more compact body of a laptop). I didn't really miss this aspect of a desktop computer... the MacBook Pro was fast enough for me in most cases.
However, related to this, one thing that I did miss is the completely quiet nature of the desktop Macs I used in recent years, like the sleek cylindrical 2013 Mac Pro, and even more so with the iMac Pro. I barely heard the fan on the Mac Pro, and I literally never heard it on the iMac Pro, even when doing multiple simultaneous processor-intensive tasks that maxed out the CPU for an extended period of time. In contrast, exporting JPEGs from Lightroom or building previews would quickly prompt the i9 MacBook Pro's fan to ramp up, producing a steady moderately high-pitched whine. So, I would make it a habit to typically run these kinds of tasks when I'm going to be out of the office for a while anyway, or overnight.
However, as mentioned above, the 2021 MacBook Pros with Apple Silicon are much better in this regard... even when pushing the CPU hard, the fans are barely audible, and the computer remains responsive even under this kind of heavy load, meaning I am free to keep working even when exporting images.
Though laptops are associated with portability, mine spends about 99% of its time in this one spot, plugged in. Only occasionally do I bring it with me somewhere... really only when I have a photography job that requires immediate on-site delivery of images or when having the computer at hand is otherwise beneficial or necessary. One thing I don't typically bring the laptop with me for is mobile editing of existing wedding or portrait images, as I use my iPad for this with Lightroom Mobile via Adobe Creative Cloud syncing.
One problem with this method of using a laptop (nearly permanently connected to power) is that keeping the battery at 100% all the time can cause it to wear out quicker. MacOS has features built-in that are supposed to mitigate this, using AI to predict when you'll need a fully-charged battery and keeping it at a reduced charge at other times, but my schedule is so sporadic, and it's extremely rare that I ever need to use the battery, so this feature doesn't really work for me. Instead, I manually control this with an app called Al Dente. This app lets you specify a lower percentage to limit your battery charge to when plugged in. I typically keep mine at 60-70%, which I feel is a good balance between keeping the battery at a healthy level while also providing enough capacity just in case I unexpectedly need to run off the battery. The app lives in the menubar, so I can easily adjust or disable the limiter if I know I'll soon be using the battery extensively and want a full charge.
I also use an app called Amphetamine to stop the computer from going to sleep when the screen is closed (though it will still sleep if on battery power). This is so that my backups can run overnight without the need to keep the screen open. I do, however, keep the screen partially open when running a lengthy, processor-intensive task (like exporting JPEGs from Lightroom or building previews), to provide better ventilation and out of concern for the heat damaging the screen. This fear may be unfounded, as there are many people who regularly use their laptops in "clamshell mode", lid closed and attached to an external keyboard, mouse, and display. But I figure it can't hurt.
I'm a big fan of SSDs, and I don't mind paying more (compared to spinning disks) for the speed, though prices of fast and high-capacity SSDs have dropped tremendously in recent years as these storage devices have increased in popularity. So in addition to the computer's built-in 1TB SSD, I also have an external 2TB Thunderbolt-connected NVMEe SSD which I use for storage of the RAW files of my current jobs and Lightroom catalog, as well as various other files.
If I were a predominantly mobile user of a laptop, extensively traveling or working on-site, it might be worth it to pay the high cost that Apple charges for higher amounts of internal storage. But since I'm almost always using the laptop in one spot, connected to power/data, it's not an inconvenience to use external drives to supplement the built-in storage, and honestly I could easily get by with even just a 256GB internal SSD, so the stock 1TB of the M1 Max is plenty for me.
I determined several years ago that there's not a noticeable speed benefit that comes from keeping RAW files on an SSD. And, to check that the faster CPUs available now don't change the equation, I repeated the testing more recently, and confirmed that exporting JPEGs from RAW files takes almost exactly the same amount of time, whether those RAW files are stored on a traditional hard drive with a read speed of 170MB/s, a basic SSD with a read speed of 400MB/s, or a Thunderbolt-connected NVMe SSD with a read speed of 2,400MB/s. To put it another way, it's clear that, at present, it doesn't matter how fast the drive can supply the image data, the CPU's ability to process that data is still the limiting factor.
But regardless, I simply like the completely silent nature of SSDs, as well as not having to wait for a sleeping hard drive to spin up whenever these files need to be accessed. A few years ago it would have been difficult to justify the very high cost of this size SSD for these relatively insignificant reasons, but since these devices are much more affordable now, it's a lot easier to swallow.
On the other hand, the speed of an SSD for Lightroom's catalog file does seem to noticeably help Lightroom be more responsive. The catalog file is essentially a database, and the faster access time of an SSD helps it more quickly access the various small pieces of information scattered throughout it. I use my computer's ultra-fast internal SSD for this.
Lastly, I do also have a couple of large external hard drives for long-term storage of files I do not need to frequently access, as well as some backup drives. These include a 10TB hard drive that is for general storage (final exported JPEGs, old RAW files, and other stuff), and an 8TB hard drive that I store files that aren't really important but I still want to keep around (I don't even maintain a local backup of this drive, just Backblaze).
For local backups, in addition to several specific RAW/Lightroom backups, my primary general backups are made to a pair of 14TB hard drives. One of these stays connected and runs automatically overnight, while the other stays disconnected and is connected and run manually once every few weeks. I also have a small portable 5TB hard drive that gets my most important files backed up to it every now and then (usually right before I leave to go on a trip, as I bring this drive with me). And everything gets backed up to Backblaze as well.
The previously mentioned main 2TB NVMe SSD is in a small external enclosure. I specifically have my RAW files and a backup of my Lightroom catalog file (which is automatically created every time I quit out of the app) on this drive so that in the event of a computer failure, I could move this drive to a secondary computer and instantly have access to my current wedding and portrait jobs (faster than having to set up a new drive and restore the files from a backup).
Lastly, I also have a USB-C enclosure that contains a pair of standard 2.5" SSDs. These are my near real-time backups that are intended to minimize downtime in the event of a drive failure. One of these mirrors the 2TB NVMe SSD, so that if this main Thunderbolt SSD fails, I still have instant access to my current work.
The other SSD in that enclosure is for a Time Machine backup (which automatically runs hourly) of my MacBook Pro's internal SSD, which would enable me to easily get a replacement computer back up and running as quickly as possible, and I do also have a secondary Time Machine backup on a small external SSD which is normally kept disconnected (but is only run manually, about once a week).
With Mac laptops for a while now being equipped with Thunderbolt ports through which they can be simultaneously charged and connected to peripherals, one convenient category of products that have become more and more popular and functional are USB-C and Thunderbolt docks.
A variety of these are available, but they all basically consist of a fairly small box that you connect to the computer, and this one single cable not only provides power to run the computer and charge the battery, but also supplies data connections for your external drives, card readers, speakers, ethernet, etc. Most of these docks will also have ports for external monitors, for those who want to use their laptop as a desktop-like machine when they're not on the go. But again, I don't usually use my computer at a desk, so I don't make use of this particular feature.
Regardless, it's very pleasant and clean to not have to deal with a tangle of multiple separate cables coming out of the computer for charging and data, and if you frequently take your laptop away for mobile use, only having to plug and unplug one cable makes this easier and more convenient.
As an illustration, my MacBook Pro currently has connected to it, with one cable connected to the dock (which in turn has a few USB hubs), three hard drives, two DVD/Blu-Ray burners, two SD card readers (with two slots each), a dual 2.5" SSD enclosure, an NVMe SSD enclosure, a pair of USB speakers, three label printers, a gigabit ethernet network connection, and an additional small USB hub that doesn't have anything permanently attached to it (it's just there to provide a conveniently-accessible place to plug in backup drives, iPhone, flash drives, etc.). All through one cable, which also powers the computer.
Now, there's a catch: all the bandwidth of that one cable must be shared among all the devices attached to the dock (just as would be the case if you connected a USB hub to your computer and attached your other devices to it). But in the real world, this isn't going to be a noticeable limitation for most photographers, unless you frequently have multiple large file copy operations with very fast drives going on simultaneously. A USB-C connection can handle somewhere in the neighborhood of 400-1000 MB/s (depending on if it's the 5gbps or 10gbps flavor of USB). A regular hard drive will be able to use about 150-180 MB/s, while a 2.5" SSD will typically use about 400-500 MB/s.
If you do need more speed, you can go with a Thunderbolt dock instead, which provides for 20-40gbps of bandwidth. For example, if you have an NVMe SSD (in a Thunderbolt enclosure), these are capable of much higher speeds than USB-C allows, so to make the most of it, you'd want a Thunderbolt dock. And if you want to use your laptop with an external monitor, a Thunderbolt dock is definitely the way to go.
One other thing to be mindful of with a dock you are considering purchasing is the amount of charging power it can provide. Note, you don't necessarily need as much power as your original charger is capable of supplying. For example, my MacBook Pro M1 Max came with a 140w charger, but the computer definitely does not need that much power to run (the higher wattage of this charger is just so that the battery can be charged faster). At idle, the computer only draws about 10w, and while actively editing it will draw 15-30w. Exporting JPEGs from Lightroom draws 50-60w.
In other words, for my computer, a 60w dock would probably suffice for most of my usage. If the computer needs more power for a short time, it will draw those extra few watts from the battery as needed. However, for tasks that make heavy use of both the CPU and the GPU simultaneously, power usage would be higher than what the dock could provide, and over an extended period of time the battery would be drained. To be on the safe side, go with a higher-wattage (85-98w) dock.
Hardware Control Surface
I find it slow and cumbersome to do extensive editing by dragging on-screen sliders around in Lightroom. For many years, I utilized apps to facilitate keyboard shortcuts for the main adjustments I typically make to images (exposure, contrast, white balance, etc.), before finally settling on a Monogram Creative Console setup.
This is a line of hardware modules that can be configured in a variety of ways to provide a comprehensive and customized hardware control surface.
You can read more about it (and a few other similar options) here.